After three seasons in the playoffs and a combined 37 regular-season wins from 2009-11, the New Orleans Saints suffered through a misery-filled 2012 campaign that not only resulted in a losing season, but also a tie for the franchise’s worst record since a three-win 2005 slate.
The Saints were bad in 2012, and the biggest culprit probably was the chaos caused by the fallout of the pay-for-injury bounty scandal. Assistant coaches Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt handled the coaching carousel during head coach Sean Payton's season-long suspension, but the team never found its rhythm without Payton at the helm.
The porous defense in New Orleans was also an issue. The Saints gave up a single-season worst 7,042 yards to opposing offenses. The previous record was held by the 1981 Baltimore Colts, who gave up 6,793 yards.
New Orleans ranked next-to-last against the pass, allowing 4,681 yards through the air, and was the worst in the league against the run, allowing 2,361 rushing yards.
So while the 2012 season will always be remembered as the year Bountygate rocked the franchise, looking ahead to 2013 brings smiles to Saints fans as an opportunity for redemption.
Recent success in New Orleans has always been measured by tracking its offense. Quarterback Drew Brees captains a unit that lights up scoreboards and pads win columns. If the Saints hope to be playoff-bound in 2013, their offense will once again have to shine.
Here are six reasons the Saints offense will return to dominance in 2013.
After six seasons at the helm, head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season and forced to make zero contact with the team. The Saints suffered on a grand scale without their head man.
Getting Payton back is like the team getting an extra first-round draft choice—except a pick with a ton of experience. It’s easy to imagine how having Payton back will instantly translate into two, possibly three, wins all by itself.
Payton has always been one of the best in-game strategists on offense and has excelled at getting the most out of his players via matchups. Payton’s great at designing specific plays for specific players and he’s had an entire football season to sit around and do nothing but find new ways to get the most out of his offense.
Payton also has a brilliant mind in regard to decision-making. He’s the heart and soul of the team and has always provided a killer instinct that’s apparent on game day. Drew Brees definitely drives the Saints bus on offense, but Payton builds the bus, tinkers with the engine, and constantly fuels the machine.
For the third time in his NFL career, quarterback Drew Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards in 2012.
His 5,177 passing yards led the league and vaulted him over the 30,000-yard mark in his tenure with the Saints. Brees has thrown for 33,571 yards in New Orleans and 45,919 yards during his 12-year career.
As good as Brees is—he's led the league in touchdown passes in four of the past five seasons—he did fall off a bit in 2012 in an area that head coach Sean Payton might be able to help with now that he’s back.
After leading the league in completion percentage from 2009-11, Brees only managed a 63 percent completion rate last season—his lowest since his arrival in New Orleans. Over the previous three seasons, Brees completed just under 70 percent of his passes, and over his last six seasons prior to 2012, he completed 67.8 percent.
That kind of dropoff—from 71.2 percent in 2011 to 63 percent in 2013—is basically equivalent to 50 incompletions over the course of a season. Imagine what 2012 could have been had he connected on 50 extra passes.
Brees will improve on his completion rate in 2013 because Payton’s play-calling and playbook tweaks will provide the all-world quarterback with some extra ammunition.
The two-tight end set in the NFL has become the latest fad. Imagine what a facilitator like Sean Payton and an orchestrator like Drew Brees can do with this new toy.
When the Saints announced the signing of tight end Benjamin Watson this offseason, images of how Watson and tight end Jimmy Graham could wreak havoc on opposing defenses must have begun dancing in the heads of the New Orleans coaching staff.
Watson caught 49 passes last year with the Cleveland Browns and has averaged just over 51 receptions over the last three years. Graham had a down year in 2012 with a hefty 85 receptions. In 2011, he caught 99.
When Graham and Watson are in the game together, it will be next to impossible for defenses to send safety help outside to cover wide receivers. With safeties and linebackers concerned about both TEs, the deep and middle portions of the field will become exposed to the receivers.
Most teams already have trouble finding a linebacker or safety to match up in coverage with a tight end. Will it be next to impossible to cover both Graham and Watson? New Orleans hopes that will be exactly the case.
The New Orleans Saints had four running backs last season who rushed for at least 200 yards. Having a number of options is beneficial in most cases in the NFL, but the presence of four quality rushers could have had its negatives, too.
The Saints traded running back Chris Ivory to the New York Jets in April, and running back Pierre Thomas told Larry Holder of the Times-Picayune that having just three running backs to share the workload is a good thing:
It's a little less crowded now, but we was all weapons and used in different ways. Now, we're still doing the same thing and having that nice little rotation (with Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles) and having that same tempo. We're happy in our room and happy to get everything back going.
Thomas also talked about his meeting with Coach Payton, and how the Saints will supposedly focus more on the run game in 2013, saying, “we've got to get back to running the ball, having 100-yard games non-stop. I can't wait. I'm excited and I know everybody else is excited."
As mentioned, the New Orleans Saints had the league’s worst defense last season, which prompted the ouster of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and a switch to the base 3-4.
Rob Ryan is the new defensive coordinator and his fly-everywhere, 3-4 defense is expected to bring more of a pass rush. If successful, Ryan’s improved defense will help the offense as well.
According to Football Outsiders, the Saints ranked No. 31 in average starting field position in 2012. Drew Brees was constantly backed up in his own territory, starting at just about the 24-yard line on average.
Because the Saints gave up so many points last season (New Orleans ranked next-to-last after allowing 28.4 points per game), opponents were able to kick off to New Orleans frequently. Because of the new kickoff line in the NFL, kickers are sailing the ball into, and through, the end zone with regularity, negating the opportunity for a big special-teams play.
If the new defense is more successful at keeping teams off the scoreboard, Brees won’t be forced to drive quite so far for the score.
The New Orleans Saints bring back two 1,000-yard receivers from last season in Marques Colston and Lance Moore.
Colston’s name has been synonymous with that kind of success. He has caught at least 70 passes and surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in six of his seven NFL seasons. The 2012 season was Moore’s first above the 1,000-yard plateau, but he’s caught 60 passes or more three times in the last five seasons.
After Colston and Moore—and remember, Brees has two tight ends now who combined for 134 catches and 1,483 receiving yards last year—the Saints aren’t done with talented pass-catching options.
Joe Morgan averaged a massive 37.9 yards per catch in his 10 receptions last season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brees had a quarterback rating of 137.6 when throwing to Morgan. Moore was Brees' next-best option, with a quarterback rating of 111.3.
Morgan was arrested for DWI and driving with no license in May, unfortunately. The Saints haven’t taken any disciplinary action yet, but if they do, the punishment likely won’t be severe enough to halt his bid for a breakout 2013.
Second-year receiver Nick Toon missed his entire rookie season after being placed on injured reserve with a foot injury in August. Larry Holder of the Times-Picayune reports that Toon doesn’t look like a guy who didn’t get any playing time in 2012.
Nick Toon appears more comfortable with the offense despite missing all of last season as a rookie. He hauled in passes on intermediate and deep routes, which makes us understand why the Saints would be high on the 2012 fourth-round pick.
Moore and Toon should provide depth and additional weaponry to Brees and the Saints passing game, helping New Orleans return to dominance on offense this coming season.